Summer 2008 | ArteZine

Tongue-tied – The Evasiveness of Language in Today’s Arab Comics


The comic book, in its present day form, is regarded as an imported medium to the Arab world. We have always translated, lettered, reprinted and read American, European, and Japanese comics, and in comparison rarely made indigenous Arab comics. The rate and scale of production has been in fits and starts, never really sustained or cogent, mostly targeting children and often propounding dominant political ideologies from pan-Arabism to Islamism. Few attempts struggled with forging a native genre that transcended the barriers of sub-cultural differences and dialects.

To defy the status quo, a group of friends and I launched an experimental issue zero of Samandal (Salamander in Arabic) almost a year ago. A quarterly tri-lingual magazine based in Lebanon that collects and publishes comics from the region and abroad, Samandal aims to provide a platform for the alternative expression of cultural and social issues for youths and adults by publishing reading material that mixes stories from their own environment with international ones. Despite receiving acclaim from artists, readers, and the press, this nascent movement remains marginal and “underground”, and has to overcome financial challenges, bureaucratic labyrinths, and the censor’s hands. However, the main challenge that my co-editors and I face remains a creative one; how to make relevant high-quality comics with rich content and powerful form, without falling into the trap of parroting established traditions, moralizing, or boring our audience to death? The work we receive teems with insights into our cultural production yet often brings with it more questions than answers. The lived experience transcribed in the strips is compelling, the lines of the illustrations borrow from many a school, and the question of using Arabic as a language emerges yet again: is it the glue that binds and defines expression or an ancient tongue that has outlived its time?


This ArteZine issue features investigations, experiments and speculations on verbal and visual strategies adopted by ten comics aficionados facing the complexities and contradictions of making an Arab comic.

Omar Khoury and Vartan Avakian take on two established comics genres: Science fiction and Superhero, but not without giving them a contextualizing twist. Mohieddin Ellabbad, the fdz and Mazen Kerbaj tell us about the prickly process of making comics today, while John Nasr and Omar Naim reflect on what it was like consuming them as Arab children growing up in the 1980s. Maha Maamoun transposes Egyptian movies into comic strips, using the medium’s particular handling of time and space to ‘read between the scenes,’ while Barrack Rima takes us behind the scenes of the grand meeting of book editors. Finally, all outlines and words fall off Raed Yassin’s telltale chromatic Superman pages.

The freshness and richness of these pieces only goes to prove the malleability of the medium of comics and a heartening readiness by artists who come from varying backgrounds to explore it. Filmmakers, musicians, photographers, performers, painters, alongside illustrators and writers collaborated to produce this action-packed issue, all the while appropriating their skills to add borrowed signs to the vocabulary of this ‘new’ language of Arab comics.


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